Anyone who haunted video store aisles in the late '90s looking for horror flicks probably remembers the cover of Dee Snider's Strangeland: bold red and white text over a muted blue photo of a woman with her mouth sewn shut. In the days before Saw, Hostel, or other films of their ilk, the image was certainly heady.
While Strangeland may not rank as one of the scariest '90s horror movies, that cover - along with its connection to Twisted Sister, one of the leading hair metal bands of the era - was enough to make plenty of people pick it up off the shelf only to be mystified by what they saw when they sat down to watch it.
Written by, produced by, and starring Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider - and inspired by one of the band's songs - Strangeland is an unusual slasher flick steeped in the body modification subculture of the '90s. It plays on fear of the burgeoning internet and touches upon themes of mental illness, moral panic, and vigilante justice. Snider plays a modern-day monster going by the handle Captain Howdy who claims he is trying to spiritually improve people by kidnapping them through internet chatrooms and subjecting them to forced body modification.
Even though the film has been widely panned by critics, it developed something of a cult following over the years, especially from people who remember picking it up off a Blockbuster shelf based on its cover art alone.
Credited as both writer and producer on the film, Dee Snider also stars as Captain Howdy AKA Carleton Hendricks, a schizophrenic sadist whose online alter-ego delights in kidnapping people and subjecting them to painful and involuntary body modification. As Captain Howdy, Snider sports tribal tattoos over half of his body, as well as various body piercings and teeth that have been filed to points.
Midway through the film, Captain Howdy is captured and declared not guilty by reason of insanity, during which time Snider also plays Carleton Hendricks, a mild-mannered version of the character who wears glasses, cardigans, and puts concealer over his tattoos.
Before his appearance in Strangeland, Snider was already well-known as the frontman and lead singer for Twisted Sister, a heavy metal band popular throughout the '80s. Twisted Sister was one of the bands targeted by the Parents Music Resource Center for making "obscene music," which led to Snider testifying in front of the United States Senate.
Released as track four on their 1984 album Stay Hungry, the nearly-eight-minute song "Horror-Teria" seems to tell a similar story to the one lead singer Dee Snider later adapted into Strangeland. Broken into two parts, the song first warns listeners to "Stay away from Captain Howdy" before transitioning into a tale of how Captain Howdy got released "on a technicality" and fell victim to "street justice."
The song admonishes, "Now before you shake your head, think if it was your child instead," lyrics that come into play when the detective on the case in Strangeland turns a blind eye to the mob hauling Carleton Hendricks away.
"What kind of a name is Captain Howdy?" one of the victims in Strangeland asks when she first encounters the character in an online chat room. Obviously she's never seen The Exorcist - in fact, it seems like nobody in this movie has.
In that 1973 horror classic, Captain Howdy is the name given by young Regan to the demon she contacts via Ouija board. While the name made its way into Strangeland thanks to the Twisted Sister song "Horror-Teria" - which warns listeners to "stay away from Captain Howdy" - its inclusion gives horror fans an immediate shiver of recognition, even if nobody in the movie ever makes the connection.
Strangeland is an extremely '90s movie - from the dial-up modems and awkward internet interface to the over-the-top nightclubs, this film couldn't take place in any other decade - and nowhere is the time period more apparent than in the soundtrack.
Featuring tracks from heavy metal mainstays like Megadeth, Pantera, Anthrax, and Marilyn Manson, not to mention nü-metal bands like Coal Chamber, System of a Down, and even Kid Rock (back when he was a lot less country), the soundtrack plays like a composite of that particular moment in metal music history.
Track titles vary from references to the film or the Twisted Sister song ("Street Justice") to suitably ominous phrases like "A Secret Place" or "Not Living," rubbing shoulders with more perplexing choices such as "Marmalade." Of course, there's also a track from Twisted Sister, and the industrial metal band Bile even shows up as themselves in the movie.